Design Thinking and The Lean Start Up

Editors note: While some may consider Design Thinking and the Lean Start Up methodology competing, in my view they compliment each other quite well.  This post is my view on how they can be integrated to help organizations succeed.

The importance of design cannot be understated.  It is a premise that most readily accept, especially when it comes to product design; but when we take an honest assessment of the results of our projects (or initiatives), in retrospect, many of our designs – system designs – are poor.  Problems and opportunities are identified, and a solution is visualized, but at the end of the day, the vision rarely materializes as originally seen.

Design Thinking incorporating the Lean Start Up can help.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a term that according to Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm IDEO, was coined by David Kelly, and is defined by Brown as:

“A discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”

Upon reflection, Brown was not totally satisfied with this definition and added that “design thinking connects need into demand.”  He has since even asked if this is a general definition of Design Thinking and if it is even useful to have one.

Going back to the definitions proposed, it is important to note that Design Thinking centers around the principles of Human Centered Design.  Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, recognize patterns, and develop ideas that have an emotional meaning in addition to being functional in the design of new innovations.

Innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their daily lives, or what they like or dislike about the way a product or service is delivered.

Design Thinking should not be thought of as a series of steps one performs, but rather a system of spaces that overlap. There are three spaces in the design thinking system: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation.  Projects can move between spaces as the ideas that impact the project evolve.  The reason to think of these as spaces instead of as discrete steps is that projects can flow through each space more than once as the team refines the ideas and experiments with new directions.  Projects can start in the inspiration space, move to the ideation space, back to inspiration, back to ideation, to implementation, to ideation, and back and forth many times until the project is successfully completed.

This very fluid model can seem chaotic, but as teams work with it and use concepts from the Lean Startup such as Build-Measure-Learn, and Shewart’s Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, they become more comfortable with the process.

Visually, the design thinking process can be represented as follows:

Design Thinking


Although projects will move through multiple spaces, the design process typically begins in the Inspiration space with the identification of a problem or opportunity that motivates people to search for a solution.  However, it does not stop with the identification of the problem or opportunity.  For many projects, this is the end of the inspiration space, and it never to be heard from again – not so with the Design Thinking methodology.

The Inspiration space involves the direct observation of the activity (the process) and the people who are performing the process.  It includes interviews, getting people to tell their story and immersion into the process so that a complete understanding of the problem or opportunity is gained.  It involves documenting the critical steps required and being able to tell the story of the users.

It allows the designers to take a look at the world through the lens of the user and see what they do, how they think, what they need and want.  There should be several disciplines involved to help gain a more complete understanding and close attention should be paid to so-called “outliers” as they may be more common than believed.  The team should not jump immediately to technology solutions, but should be looking at how technology (new or enhanced) could help.

Once the observations are completed, the information needs to be organized and synthesized to provide more clarity.  A project room can serve as a good place for insights to be shared and to start into the next space: Ideation.


The next space in the design thinking process is ideation.  Once the team has observed and documented activities in the inspiration space, they need to synthesize what they saw and heard into thoughts that can lead to solutions to the problem or opportunity.

The major activity in this space is brainstorming.  To get the most out of this activity, it is important the team is made up of interdisciplinary members with different backgrounds and approaches to the solution.  This will allow the team to be truly creative and potentially create disruptive innovations.  The process should be structured, with each idea written on a Post-it note and shared with the team on the wall – visualization is important during this time.  The ideas can then be stratified into different categories as they move closer to becoming implemented.  It is important during brainstorming there is open and honest communication, and that the often obstructionist role of the devil’s advocate is minimized.  Once the ideas are vetted further, this role can become useful, but early in the process, it will stifle creativity.

Depending on the problem to be solved, the team can move into a more detailed mapping of the process, constructing current and future state maps, confirming critical steps, identifying wastes (those activities which add no value), and the initial selection of metrics.  The team should also research and investigate any applicable Best Practices that may exist.

Once the ideas are vetted and a process map is developed, questions often arise about the problem – will this solution solve the problem? what are we missing? etc., as the team starts to move toward the next space of Implementation.  To answer these questions, the team needs to move back to the Inspiration space before moving forward.  This will allow for clarification and help ensure the solution proposed will actually solve the problem.  Once this is complete, the solution is updated as needed, and the team will move into the next space: Implementation.


The final space of the design thinking process is Implementation.  In this space, the ideas generated during Ideation are turned into a solid, well rounded action plan.  The action plan should go beyond a simple task list, but incorporate visual tools, and be part of an accountability process in order to keep the team on task.

Critical to success in this space is prototyping – turning the idea in to an actual product or service that will be tested, iterated, and refined.  Through the development of a prototype (or pilot), designs can be observed, modified, and validated.

The Implementation space will have many iterations, and moves through what Eric Reis, author of The Lean Startup, refers to at the Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop (shown below).  In this loop, ideas are built and a product/service is developed and piloted.  Measurements are developed to gauge the success of the product/service, and data is collected.  The data is analyzed allowing the team to Learn about how the product/service is being used, which leads to more ideas generated on how to improve the product/service.  The overall goal is to minimize the total time through the loop.

Once the prototyping/pilot process is finished, and the product is ready, the design team needs to create a communication strategy.  The importance of communication cannot be underestimated – according to John Kotter of the Harvard Business School, organizations under-communicate new initiatives by a factor of 10.  Storytelling, especially through multimedia can be very powerful in communicating a message to a diverse audience.  Other communication tools such as micro-learning, town hall meetings, video chats, and even traditional flyers can prove helpful.

Build Measure Learn Loop
Applying Design Thinking with The Lean StartUp

The design thinking process can integrate very well into the culture of any size company.  In fact, various spaces of the design thinking process are often utilized on projects, but not as an integrated design process.

The design thinking process, along with the Lean Start Up feedback loop, can be used for every new initiative an organization considers, whether it be a new department or initiative, or a new product or service that could potentially become a free-standing company.   Better defining the innovation and strategic execution process will allow the organization to focus on and prioritize those initiatives and products that will truly contribute to success.

Most ideas start in the inspiration space, though the originator of the idea rarely realizes they are operating in that space, they typically just have come to the realization there is a problem or opportunity and they have an idea on how it should be solved.   They quickly move into the Ideation space and possibly Implementation space, then realize they may not have correctly or accurately framed the problem, so they return to the Inspiration space to learn more.  As the idea gains momentum, they move into the Implementation space.  This incorporates heavy use of the Build-Measure-Learn (BML) loop, which may cause them to move back to the Inspiration space as they learn from their customers about how the product was implemented.  And the cycle continues; weaving in and out of different spaces, utilizing BML as a guiding principle, all the while making improvements to the product or service for the customer.


Design thinking is a structured process without a lot of structure.  The foundational spaces of Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation provide a framework to operate under, yet are not constrictive or so self-prescribing to state things must be done in a specified way.  The ability to flow between spaces is critical to the successful use of the design thinking process.

Systemic problems need systemic solutions, and design thinking provides a process for this dilemma.


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